Text and photos by Elizabeth Lolarga, VERA Files
FOG, chill, almost non-stop rain--it's that time of the year in Baguio City when hotels and inns offer off-season prices. For some it's a good time for an R & R without the lowland crowd of holiday seekers jostling you at the usual tourist spots. For the foodie undaunted by dour weather forecasts, any time is reason for a trip north.
A number of restaurants come highly recommended in local and foreign food guides (e.g., Hill Station in the Asian Miele Guide) or by word of mouth. Those wanting something beyond garlicky longganisa, raisin bread, ube jam or strawberries and cream traditionally linked with the city can take heart that Asean cuisine has finally arrived.
It started more than a year ago with Happy Tummy, a Thai food place on Romulo Drive which had a few tables, some in the open, others inside native huts. There was a tacky wishing well at the center. Sometimes, depending on where the direction of the wind was, the unmistakable scent of horse manure wafted from across Wright Park.
Nonetheless, Thai spicy cuisine seemed compatible with Baguio's clime so the place's opening was met with a "It's about time!"
This year the place expanded as other new restaurants moved in, turning it into what a blogger calls "a food hub" with the catchy collective name of Ketchup: The Food Community. Inside the wooden fence are Happy Tummy, now sporting a new look of high ceilings (the well is gone) and vases and pots of flora, including herbs, on tables and corners; Rumah Satei with a list of Malaysian and Indonesia dishes; Cafe Circolo; Canto for hefty barbecue servings and fries; and Rancho Norte, the last probably offering the only tri-colored puto bumbong in the entire city.
On sunny, even drizzly days, the community is where to take children after a trot and canter in Wright Park. They can wind down and have the adults ask for child-size meals. In fact, the so-called "pony boys" (horsemen actually who escort young clients on horseback) sometimes take their meals there which is why Happy Tummy and the others added meat-heavy Pinoy staples like lechon kawali and bulalo to their menus.
Hopefully, all the restaurant owners have somehow gotten their act together, and there's less confusion when the bill in one table is summed up. This is because customers are allowed to sit in one restaurant and order dishes from that kitchen and from the nearby ones, too. It's possible for a group to eat together, one member having the deep-fried tilapia with tamarind sauce from Happy Tummy, another the smoky ribs from Canto paired with onion rings, then cap the meal with bibingka ordered from Rancho Norte. The caveat is to examine the bill closely.
On a weekday, locals tend to gravitate to Happy Tummy, and with reason. The discerning palate will note the consistently spicy warmth of its Tom Yung Goong soup. The appetizing fiery orange soup combines lemongrass and spices and sufficient number of stout shrimps. The crackling crispness of the fried tilapia is best eaten in situ, not taken out, for it turns soggy afterwards. Fried rice comes in variations. The dessert list changes, depending on what the chef patron has found in the market for the day.
New on that list is the ripe mango with sticky rice. The owner is humble enough to apologize before you even take a first bite. She says the quality of the malagkit or glutinous rice might not be up to par. You assure her it's near perfect, the blandness of the rice enriched with coconut milk and foiling the sweetness of the mango.
In Baguio, a five-star meal for two like that can amount to just over P500. It must be why that the place has a name that denotes contentment.
Ketchup deserves repeated visits in a city that is being deluged with food franchises that have put golden arches or a gigantic bee mascot on nearly every major downtown corner. On a less crowded part of the city, Ketchup must keep its standards up, perhaps offer off-season prices for the locals who are the mainstays once tourists have gone down, and address the parking space problem.
In a city where it is almost automatic to head for Star Café for egg pie and coffee, Baguio Teahouse for Chona's Delight (part cake, part ice cream), Good Shepherd Convent for jams, preserves and cookies, Umali's or Garcia's at the public market for a variety of coffee blends, O' Mai Khan (a summon to mean "come and eat") for Mongolian barbecue and tart pastries, Iggy's Inn for drunken shrimps and grilled milkfish, Ketchup is a welcome addition to what is turning into a highland food paradise.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")